The trip that changes you

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

We set up the grill in two locations during the trip. Here, we cooked hot dogs and packed lunches in this field, which was set up for work crews and people would take food into the once-flooded neighborhoods as it was too moldy and contaminated with sewage to cook in the neighborhood. Daniel Shetler was not only our fearless driver, but our very patient grillmaster.
















I almost didn’t get to go.

Just shy of a week before I was set to travel to North Carolina with Hoosiers Help, a local, faith-based outreach ministry, to deliver supplies and hot meals to victims of Hurricane Florence, my eye started acting up. It felt like there was an eyelash in it and no matter what I did, it was still irritated. The next morning, a Sunday, I awoke to find it glued shut. A trip to St. Vincent’s urgent care confirmed the pink eye and I got a bottle of drops and worried that I may have to back out of the trip.

I’d wanted to go on a trip to Texas after Hurricane Harvey, but things hadn’t worked out. Of course, just days after Kristine Shetler asked if I’d like to go on the trip, I’d end up with an eye infection. This was on top of a cold that began the weekend before, during Old Settlers’ Days that grew into some sort of infection because, on Thursday, the day before we were to travel, I went to my regular doctor and got new drops for my eye as the ones I was given weren’t working and he also wrote me a prescription for whatever he saw up my nose. Still, I was welcomed to travel with the group. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to the need for volunteers or the graciousness of my traveling companions.

So, armed with my luggage, two antibiotics (which kicked in quickly and beautifully, thank God), hand sanitizer and two packages of hand sanitizing wipes, and a box of maximum strength cold and flu, I set off with five others from Hoosiers Help in the Mt. Tabor church bus and a trailer of supplies for North Carolina.

And it was exhausting. It was hot and sweaty. It was heartbreaking. It was humbling. It was amazing and as hot and tiring and emotionally draining as it was, there really wasn’t anywhere else I’d have rather been.

As we got closer and closer to Wilmington, we could see (and smell) the damage. Homes that looked fine, we knew likely had mold crawling up the walls. Neighborhoods were spotted by blue with tarps on roofs, trying to avoid any more water damage. Piles of belongings lined streets where the flood waters had already gone down, allowing people to return to their homes to salvage what was left and begin starting over. We joined up with Crisis Relief International, who dispatched us to places that needed meals and supplies. These were generally places with smaller, more rural populations that hadn’t seen help at all because it simply made more sense for larger organizations to work in more populated areas. We went to a home along Cape Fear where a woman we were told to meet up with, Rae Riley, was helping her sister, Tracy Potter, muck out her home. Tracy’s in-laws’ home had been flooded several feet high. Homes further down the road along the river were still underwater, reachable only by boat, with helicopters dropping food down. Rae took some supplies to distribute among her neighborhood and sent us to a fish restaurant nearby, right on the waterway, which had flooded past the ceiling, carrying some chairs and a refrigerator up to sit on the roof. The waters had receded, but they were shoveling a slurry of cream, corn meal and flour out by the wheelbarrow load and had lost almost everything in the building.

“They’ll try to refuse the supplies,” said Rae, “but tell them to take them. They need them and what they don’t need, they’ll distribute to other people around there.”

The supplies we weren’t planning to cook and serve all went there and we traveled to a Food Lion Parking lot, where we set up the grill for the second time that day and cooked hot dogs and packed bags of chips, cookies and applesauce and I will never look at a hot dog or Oreo the same way again.

Before this trip, I’d look at an Oreo and think to myself, “This is not worth 70 calories.” Hot dogs were a second-rate food (unless they came from a Chicago food truck). They were convenience food, to be eaten when there wasn’t anything better on the menu.

I watched a woman tear up over a Kool-Aid Jammer because they had only had water for so long and it was nice to have a flavored drink. A girl came up with her grandma and was excited about the cup of applesauce (we gave her extra). I never thought I could make someone out of toddlerhood happy with applesauce. A man said his children would be so thrilled to have the Oreos. People came up to the booth, some quite shyly and several refusing more than one meal. They were free, we offered more, but they’d say no, they only needed one. They were so grateful for the one.

I don’t like so-called “inspiration porn,” where people with physical handicaps or illnesses or who live in poverty are held up as lessons in endurance or gratefulness for those of us without an illness or with roofs over our heads. Facebook is rife with these posts and they always make me cringe a little, especially as the page posting them usually doesn’t own the picture or even know the person in it. These are human beings and they’re not living their lives to be a guilt trip to those who indulge in the occasional whine. However, I found myself thinking a lot about their reaction to something as simple as a sack lunch and a bottle of water. No one was bitter. No one was angry. They were tired and numb and grateful. Rhonda Johnson, who went with us on the trip and has taken students from West Washington and her church’s youth group on many mission trips, said going on these trips changes you. She’s right.

I’m the sort of person who hates feeling helpless. It’s more than just not being able to help. It’s like standing awkwardly in a hospital room as doctors and nurses rush to the bed to help someone in cardiac arrest, no matter how close I am in reality to the crisis. Even when I’m miles away, I feel like I’m in someone’s way. If I’m not actively helping, I’m a hindrance. Being able to come in, even with just a sack lunch or a box of paper towels and jugs of bleach — having something physical to do, being able to be hands and feet on the ground to help someone else was helpful to me as well. People thanked me and I thanked them back. Partly because I’m awkward and that’s the first thing my brain tells me to say and partly because I really was grateful to get to go and experience this.

On top of all that, Friday evening, we got a message from Frank and Marie Gottbrath, who moved to Leland, North Carolina, after the 2012 tornado destroyed their Pekin-area home. They heard we were coming and wanted to help, and served with us all day before opening their beautiful home to us for the night. This allowed us each a bed and showers, which were so much more preferable than the floor of a warehouse and shuttles to a gym shower we had been preparing for. They were such a blessing and it was so lovely to meet them!

It’s still very early yet. Not everyone has been able to return to their homes and there’s no guarantee there will be much of a home to come back to by the time they get there, given the mold that had already begun to hang in the air. There will be much more work to do. Some won’t be able to do it — their health won’t let them be around so much mold and open sewage — but there are still plenty of places for more hands and feet, especially if those hands can wield construction (or deconstruction) equipment. Something tells me this isn’t Hoosiers Help’s last trip to North Carolina and, hopefully, not mine, either., @Kate Wehlann on Twitter

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